Oliver the Cat Who Saved Christmas

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Oliver the Cat Who Saved Christmas Page 9

by Sheila Norton

‘Well, I was actually going to suggest you might like to join. It’s not like you would imagine. We do lots of interesting stuff, and there are several younger women like yourself. It would help you make friends in the village. I know it’s hard when you’re at work in the city all week.’

  ‘Oh!’ Nicky said again, and she laughed. ‘You must have known what I’ve been thinking. I sometimes wonder whether Dan and I will ever fit in here.’

  ‘Of course you will. Everyone’s very friendly. Well, most people are. But you haven’t been here long, and you’ve got no free time to mix with people, have you? The WI meetings are usually on Tuesday evenings, and of course as you know, while we can’t use the hall, we’re meeting in each other’s homes. Why don’t you come with me one week and see what you think?’

  ‘Thanks, Sarah. Perhaps I will.’ She still sounded a little doubtful. ‘Although I keep saying I’m going to look for an evening job,’ she suddenly blurted out. ‘Something temporary. Bar work, or waitressing. But to be honest, I’m always too tired when I get home from work.’

  ‘And I keep saying I don’t want you to do that, anyway,’ Daniel said, sounding upset. ‘Neither of us should be talking about second jobs. I’m looking for a better-paid job, so that we don’t have to.’

  There was a silence then, which made the whole room suddenly feel very uncomfortable. Sarah and Martin were fidgeting in their chairs, looking into their drinks, doing little coughing noises.

  ‘What kind of work are you in, Dan?’ Martin asked eventually.

  ‘I just work in a shop,’ he replied, staring at the floor.

  I wondered why he sounded so sorry about it. I’d have thought it’d be great fun to work in a shop.

  ‘It’s not just any old shop, it’s one of the big stores in the West End,’ Nicky protested. ‘But they pay their staff peanuts.’

  That sounded quite fun, too. Not that I liked peanuts myself, but I’d seen Daniel enjoying them, so I wasn’t sure what the problem was.

  ‘It’s not exactly my dream job,’ Daniel said with a sigh. ‘I always wanted to be a car mechanic.’

  ‘Really?’ Martin was looking interested. ‘Did you train to do that?’

  ‘Kind-of. My dad taught me. We both just liked tinkering around with cars, you know? It was a hobby. We used to fix a few neighbours’ cars, and Dad used to say that when I left school he’d set me up in business doing it. So I never bothered with my exams – I was always so sure it was what I was going to do.’ He fell silent.

  ‘What happened?’ Sarah asked gently.

  ‘Daniel’s dad had a heart attack, and sadly he didn’t survive,’ Nicky answered for him. ‘Dan had to get a job – any job – to help his mum.’

  ‘Then Mum got a new boyfriend.’ Daniel picked up the story. ‘And … well, she didn’t need me anymore. They actually moved to Spain in the end and I hardly ever hear from them. And of course, I met Nicky.’ He gave her a little smile.

  ‘So it’s my fault, really,’ Nicky said, smiling with her face but not with her voice. ‘He’s never been able to stop working at the shop and start doing what he really wants to, because first of all we lived with my parents but, well, it didn’t work out. And now…’

  ‘The cottage next door was the cheapest place we could find to rent anywhere.’ Daniel shrugged. ‘But it’s so far to commute to both our jobs – we just didn’t think it through properly. After the rent, nearly all our money goes on the train fares. Nicky had only just finished college when we got together. Her parents warned us we were rushing things. We should have listened.’

  ‘But you wanted to be together,’ Sarah said softly. Her eyes looked all wet. ‘Of course you did. And I’m sure things will get easier in time.’

  ‘Maybe,’ Nicky said, not sounding convinced.

  She looked at Daniel, and Daniel looked back at her. There was another one of those silences. I could tell there was something somebody wasn’t saying. We cats are good at picking up these things.

  ‘The thing is,’ Daniel suddenly blurted out. ‘It’s going to be even harder now.’

  ‘We weren’t going to tell anyone yet, Dan,’ Nicky said, looking worried. ‘Not till we’d told my parents.’

  ‘I know. But what difference does it make? They’re going to be livid. They’ll never help us out now. They’ll blame me, and say we’re both stupid, and we should have been more careful. And they’ll be right, won’t they, let’s face it.’

  Nicky was crying now. I leapt up onto her lap, purring at her, and she gave me little quick strokes like she didn’t even know she was doing it.

  ‘I’m pregnant,’ she told Sarah and Martin, in a little quiet voice. ‘Three months, now. We didn’t mean for it to happen, obviously. I put off getting a test to confirm it, for as long as I could – I kept hoping it was a false alarm. Not that we didn’t want children. I love children, I work with them. We wanted them, but not for ages yet. We wanted to get married first, and now we’ll never be able to afford that.’ She sighed and wiped her eyes. ‘We just seem to get ourselves into one mess after another.’

  ‘Oh, Nicky.’ Sarah got up and came over to put her arms around her. I felt like I was in the way, so I jumped down and went to console Daniel instead, rubbing myself against his legs, but he looked too unhappy to care. ‘I must admit I did wonder, when you’ve kept refusing the wine and drinking orange juice. If there’s anything we can do to help…’

  ‘Thank you. But there isn’t, really. We’ll just have to get on with it, won’t we? I’ll work right up till the last minute, and go back again as soon as I’ve had my statutory maternity leave. At least I can take the baby with me to work!’ she added with a little snort of a laugh.

  ‘Oh yes, you work in a nursery, don’t you,’ Sarah said. ‘Can’t you find a job in one that’s closer to home?’

  ‘Not paying as much as mine does.’

  ‘It’s a really posh place,’ Daniel said, giving Nicky a proud look. ‘All the rich London people send their kids there. Nicky was the highest-placed student of her year on the childcare course, with distinctions in everything. So she had her pick of the best jobs.’

  ‘Oh, clever you, Nicky.’ Sarah was looking thoughtful. ‘But, of course, it means paying those train fares.’

  ‘Yes. I know. It’s swings and roundabouts, I suppose. On the other hand, if we moved back to London, and rented a flat there, even with those astronomical rents, we might still be no worse off, with only a short bus or tube ride to work.’

  ‘I’d like our child to grow up here, in the countryside, though, Nick,’ Daniel said, looking kind of wistful.

  ‘So would I, Dan. But we might not have the luxury of that option,’ she snapped.

  The evening seemed to have come to an unhappy ending. I gave up trying to comfort them all and went off to my bed in the kitchen.


  So they’ve finally decided on a name for you. They took their time, didn’t they? Well, fair enough, I know it’s an important decision and I agree, you wouldn’t want to be lumbered with something embarrassing like Tiddles for instance, just because they rushed into it. So you’re going to be Charlie. Yes, it’s good, I like it. It doesn’t quite have the class of Oliver, but it’s got a certain ring to it and at least it sounds a lot more masculine than Kitty. And they’re getting you an engraved identity disc like mine? Good. Take it from one who knows – even if you’re not going to be a wanderer, you never know when events might overtake you and you might end up getting lost in a wood, like I did. No, don’t worry. I’m sure that won’t happen to you.

  So, Charlie, you want to hear some more of my story, do you? I must say I’m quite gratified by how much of an impression it’s making on you. I’m sure you’ll be learning a few lessons from my experiences. But I should remind you that I learnt quite an important lesson myself because of all this. I learnt that it’s not a good idea to be too proud of your achievements. No cat is invincible. We just end up making fools of ourselves if we think we ar

  My problem, as I’ve already mentioned, was that I was getting a bit too carried away with all the praise from the villagers. It was such a nice feeling, to think that I’d personally helped everyone get together with new friends and meet up with their old ones. They were all talking about what a friendly place the village had become since the disaster of the fire. Sarah seemed to be one of the brains behind all the new arrangements, alongside myself of course.

  ‘We need to make more use of the notice board,’ she said one evening while the family were having their dinner.

  ‘Notice board?’ Martin said, looking blank.

  ‘Yes, the one outside the village hall. It’s survived the fire, hasn’t it, but nobody seems to have used it since.’

  ‘Well, no, because none of the groups and clubs that met there are meeting now, so they’ve got no announcements to make.’

  ‘Of course they have!’ she interrupted. ‘We all have. We’ve all been phoning each other, dropping notes through everyone’s doors, emailing people, about whose house we’re meeting in each week – when all we needed to do was agree a schedule of dates and venues and put it on the board.’

  ‘Put like that, it sounds obvious,’ Martin admitted. ‘But these things always need someone to organise them.’

  ‘Well done for volunteering, Mart,’ she said, laughing, and then, because he looked so taken aback, she added, ‘you can organise the dominoes players at least, can’t you? I’ll get a rota done for the WI, and help Anne sort out the Brownies. Hopefully other people will soon get the message.’

  Apparently they did, because within just a couple of days Sarah was saying the pensioners’ club and the mum-and-baby group had both put up lists on the board.

  ‘And there are a couple of other notices,’ she added. ‘It’s like everybody had forgotten about the notice board and now they’re all starting to use it again.’

  ‘Good for you, then, love. It’s a lot easier than phoning around, isn’t it, and not everyone’s on email. What are the other notices about?’

  ‘Oh, there’s one from Kay – you know, the woman who used to run the nursery? Up till now she’s managed to keep going, with as many of the children as possible, running it from her own home in Great Broomford. It’s obviously been difficult, though, and two of her staff have found other jobs. So she’s closing after Christmas. She says she’s really sorry to let people down but she simply can’t carry on running it from home for the length of time we’re going to be without the hall.’

  ‘What’s she doing, then? Will she start up somewhere else? Only I’m just thinking, if she’s going to need new staff…’

  ‘I know what you’re thinking.’ Sarah smiled. ‘Nicky next door. But you know what she said – she can’t earn the money she needs, locally. Anyway no, sadly Kay’s decided to call it a day and retire. She’s in her fifties and she’s got a grandchild of her own, now, apparently, and another on the way. So she wants more time for herself and her own family.’

  ‘Fair enough. Can’t blame her. But what about the parents who used the nursery for their kids? There isn’t another one anywhere around here, is there?’

  ‘No. And even further afield, they’ll all have waiting lists, you can bet your life. I don’t know what they’ll all do, Martin. It’s so difficult for people, isn’t it, when they both have to work. It was only a small nursery, but nearly all the working parents in the village used it, even if only for one or two days a week.’

  Another day, another problem for Little Broomford. I didn’t like to hear about all these people struggling with the details of their lives. It’s strange how humans have so many worries and problems in their lives, little kit—sorry, I mean Charlie – when all we cats have to worry about is getting enough to eat and avoiding horrible things like foxes and unstrapped dogs. If they’re so much cleverer than us, you’d think they’d have made their lives easier for themselves rather than harder, wouldn’t you.

  * * *

  Although I’d heard my human friends talking about the old female called Barbara who half-murdered me when I chased the birds in her garden, I hadn’t been anywhere near her cottage again since that day. But every time her name came up, it seemed to provoke lots of smiles and chuckles, and I gathered she’d had some kind of personality change and was being nicer to everyone. Hard though it was to believe, considering how she spoke to me, to say nothing of picking me up by my neck and threatening me with her spoon, I decided I’d pluck up my courage again, and go to see this transformation for myself.

  There was a cold wind blowing again that day. Every now and then the wind blew the dry brown leaves that had fallen off the trees earlier on, up into the air, whirling them around like miniature snowstorms. It made me feel kind of skittish and scampery, and I bounded down the road they call Back Lane and took a running jump up onto Barbara’s wall. I could see straight into her front room, and to my amazement, there she was, looking just the same as before with her grey hair piled up on top of her head and her glasses halfway down her nose, but this time she had her mouth turned up in a huge smile. In fact as I watched her, she threw back her head, opened her mouth wide, and I could actually hear her laughing from where I was. Sitting next to her on the sofa, all comfy, with his arm resting along the back of the sofa so that he was almost, but not quite, cuddling her, was the old male from over the road, the one they’d called Stan.

  Well, I decided to be really brave and get a closer look. The windowsill was just about wide enough to sit on, so after a moment poised on the wall, judging the distance, twitching and preparing my muscles for the jump, the way we do, I leapt neatly across the tiny garden and made a good safe landing. From this new vantage point, I could see that the television was on, and both the old humans had their back paws up on the same stool, and a bright red woolly blanket draped over their legs. There was a bottle open on the little table next to Stan, and they both had glasses in their front paws. As I watched them, they sipped from their drinks and turned to smile at each other.

  ‘It’s that cat again!’ the female suddenly shrieked, pointing at me through the window. It gave me such a fright, I overbalanced and fell right off the windowsill, which was particularly embarrassing as there was a robin watching from the flowerbed, who was no doubt going to go home and tell his entire family about it. I got straight up onto my paws, of course, and started washing myself frantically to show I didn’t care. I kept one eye on the front door, half expecting the old woman to come stamping out waving her spoon again, despite her new cosy smiley appearance. But instead, I gradually became aware of the sound of laughter. Not just the quiet chuckling kind of laughing humans do over some of their television programmes, but absolute roars of high-pitched laughter, louder than shouting. It was both of the old humans laughing out loud together. I stopped washing in surprise, listening to the din. And when it eventually died away, I could hear them muttering together, like they were almost too worn out to talk.

  ‘… watching us cuddling up on the sofa…’

  ‘… probably wanted a glass of our sherry…’

  ‘… no, probably wanted to get under the blanket with us…’

  ‘… you scared him half to death, poor little bugger…’

  ‘… fell off the bloody windowsill!’

  At which, to my intense annoyance, they both began to howl with laughter again. I couldn’t imagine what was particularly hilarious about seeing a cat fall off a windowsill. Admittedly I wouldn’t have expected any better from the robin, but any decent, caring human would surely have come rushing outside to make sure I wasn’t hurt, wouldn’t you think?

  But as I set off home in a huff, I must say I gradually started to see the funny side of it myself. And to be honest, it could only be good news for me that the old Barbara female seemed to have developed a sense of humour.

  * * *

  ‘It turns out there’s now another use for the notice board,’ Sarah told Martin the following day.

  ‘Really? You we
re right, then – it just took one person to start using it again, and within days everyone’s caught on! So what’s gone on there now?’

  ‘A suggestion from one of the mums whose child has been going to the nursery. She’s said that as most of them only work part-time, and only use the nursery two or three days a week, perhaps they could try to pair up to look after each other’s children on the days they don’t work.’

  ‘Sounds like a sensible idea.’ Martin thought about it for a moment, then added, ‘But again, it sounds like it’d be an organisational nightmare. Some probably work Mondays and Wednesdays, others Tuesdays and Fridays and so on. They might not get it to fit.’

  ‘I know. But this mum has started a list of names, and asked others who like the idea to write the days they work and the days they’d be available to look after someone’s child. At least it’s a start, even if it’s only a temporary measure.’

  ‘Yes. Good for her. Hope it works. They could all save the nursery fees, too, that way.’

  ‘Exactly. Very enterprising.’ She smiled. ‘Our villagers have really been working together since the fire, haven’t they? If only we could find a way to reinstate our Christmas parties, a lot of the problems might be ironed out before Christmas.’

  ‘Not for Nicky and Daniel, unfortunately.’

  ‘No.’ Sarah was stroking me, absent-mindedly, as she spoke. ‘That’s another situation even you can’t solve, Ollie.’

  Oh boy. Another challenge. I hadn’t even got any further with working out how to save the parties yet. I was going to have my work cut out if I was going to be the Cat Who Saved Christmas. I’d better catch up on my sleep while I had the chance.


  With all the humans so busy and caught up in their own worries and plans for Christmas, and making rotas and notices for their meetings, and Tabby being such a pain showing off to his girlfriend, I just carried on with my solitary visits to the Big House. For a couple more days I sat outside the big windows and talked to the girl called Caroline through the glass. I knew instinctively that there was something wrong, because she didn’t run around and play like Grace and Rose. She was as quiet as Rose used to be when I first met her, but there wasn’t any sign of a damaged paw to explain it. I knew she was always pleased to see me, and the woman called Laura seemed pleased too because it was cheering Caroline up.


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